What Americans Are Afraid Of: Just About Everything

by | Aug 24, 2009

Frustrated with the lack of meaningful dialogue around the nation’s health care debate, columnist Paul Krugman let one rip in The New York Times yesterday.

Washington, it seems, is still ruled by Reaganism — by an ideology that says government intervention is always bad, and leaving the private sector to its own devices is always good.

Call me naïve, but I actually hoped that the failure of Reaganism in practice would kill it. It turns out, however, to be a zombie doctrine: even though it should be dead, it keeps on coming.

Yes, because the zombies–in this case the insurance companies and big pharma–have lots of money at stake. When there’s lot of money at stake, the public will be under-served every time. That much we know.

Krugman, unlike most Americans, is a student of history.

“We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals,” said Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937. “We know now that it is bad economics.” And last year we learned that lesson all over again.

Or did we? The astonishing thing about the current political scene is the extent to which nothing has changed.

Sadly, our present day recession is bad, but not bad enough to break the stranglehold. We haven’t reached a tipping point yet. In the 1930s one-in-three Americans was out of work and let’s remember that women typically didn’t hold jobs at that time, which meant one-in-three households had no income whatsoever. Today, things are falling apart, but not as fast.

More importantly, the psychology of the situation isn’t leading Americans to fundamental change. Instead of coming to terms, millions are busy trying hard to hold on to whatever they have—their boat, their home, the college fund for the kids and/or a retirement nest egg. Let’s just get back to normal is the prevailing mindset and that’s not going to lead to radical change.

We needn’t look back very far to recall what a miserable start the Clinton White House had in 1993 because of health care. Whatever the powerful interest–health care, the gun lobby, welfare farmers, warring oilmen–they can be outdone, but only through a massive public uprising. And who has time for that kind of vigilance when there’s a job to keep (or find), kids to feed, dogs to walk and favorite TV programs to capture on the DVR?

Krugman is astonished that nothing has changed in America. He knows we ought to know better. But we don’t know better and therein lies the real challenge. How do we lead our neighbors, friends and family from the fear that binds them into a new era of cooperation and trust? I don’t know any way other than to write it out and talk it out.